Rough Rides, Gold Camps & Daring Drivers
By Cheryl Anne Stapp, The History Press
Book Review by Craig MacDonald
For more than 50 years, the Stagecoach created a
colorful chapter in California history. It was
not just a vehicle of convenience, necessity and
adventure. The stage jumpstarted and helped
develop "The Golden State's" economy--from
banking and freight shipping, to mass transit,
postal service and tourism—all industries still
prominent in California.
In her book, the author aptly explains the importance of stagecoaching by breaking its significance down stage-by-stage, beginning as Northern California's first public transportation.
Using marvelous black and white photos from yesteryear, Historian Stapp takes readers on an enjoyable, entertaining and educational journey.
There was no public transportation in the Gold Rush Country until innovative James Birch saw the need and filled it. The former Providence, R.I. stagewhip, started charging $32 a person to take a wagonload of folks on a 40 mile trip from Sacramento to Coloma and on to Mormon Island. Birch was in such demand, that within 5 years, he helped establish the California Stage Company, which became the largest and richest such enterprise in the United States.
The company, guided by Birch and his partner Frank Stevens, took people throughout the Gold Country, to places like Nevada City, Rough and Ready, Auburn, Placerville, Marysville and Drytown. They not only took people but freight, mail and strongboxes (for companies like Wells, Fargo.)
In 1852, William Fargo and Henry Wells formed Wells, Fargo & Co., offering expressing, banking and gold buying along the West Coast. Their firm awarded contracts to the most reliable stagelines, who then lettered "Wells, Fargo & Co." on their coaches.
Stages often traveled 12mph on flat, hard services but slowed down to 2mph or slower going up and down steep hills. Occasionally, passengers had to get off and help the driver guide the coach up an incline.
The Sacramento-based historian writes that the stagewhips were "idolized by small boys, envied by grown men and held in awe by the ladies. The stagedriver was the King of his realm."
She tells of Charley Parkhurst, who had met Birch back in Providence, and came to California at his request. Charley became one of the finest drivers in the state, safely guiding horses and coaches throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains and all around the Bay Area, getting passengers to their destinations on time and intact. When Charley passed away in 1879, people were stunned to learn that "he" was a woman. She had dressed like the other stagewhips, who were nearly all male.
(You can see her grave and special monument in the Pioneer Cemetery at 66 Marin St., Watsonville.)
Among the other stagewhips highlighted in this most dangerous occupation are Jared Crandall and Hank Monk.
During the early years of the Gold Rush, stages transported more than $100 million in gold. Some of these shipments became targets for robbers like Tom Bell, Charles and John Ruggles, Black Bart and even a group of renegade Confederates, who held up a stage at Bullion Bend.
Some like the Ruggles Brothers, ended up being hanged. Oddly enough, Black Bart, who held up coaches from 1875-1883, was finally done in by a linen handkerchief he accidentally left behind. It had a San Francisco laundry mark on one corner that led to him being tracked down!
The author even covers routes, towns and stagestops, including Dutch Flat, Yankee Jim's, Downieville, Shasta and Stockton.
She tells about the sad decline of staging, including when a farmer appeared in a town driving an old Pioneer Stage, completely full of chickens. The inside had been remodeled for poultry coops!
By January, 1890, the trans-Sierra Stage Routes were eliminated by trains. Yet for years, some coaches still took people to the "iron horses." By 1920, nearly all old stages were a thing of the past as trains and automobiles took their place. But they remain--and always will be-- a colorful and glorious part of California history.
(The reviewer has been a fan of stages and stagedrivers for many years. He once rode aboard a coach in the Sierra driven by Lou Cabral, who ended up being pictured driving a stage on Wells Fargo Bank checks.)